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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Did a Couple of San Francisco Lesbians Invent Modern Food Writing?

Posted By on Thu, Jun 25, 2009 at 2:04 PM

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Lee Sutton/Flickr
In anticipation of the city's sprawling Pride festival on Sunday, June 28, SFoodie is offering up daily features celebrating San Francisco's LGBT food and drink culture.

In 1928, home ec writers and secret lesbian lovers Genevieve Callahan and Lou Richardson (yep, Lou was a she) left Iowa, where they'd been working as editors for Better Homes & Gardens magazine. In San Francisco, their ex-boss Larry Lane had just bought a failing regional magazine called Sunset.

For the next decade, Gen and Lou were co-architects of Sunset's revolutionary changes in publishing, not least of which was inventing today's style of journalism-based food reporting. No longer would food writers necessarily be pearl-strung home ec ladies, cloistered in test kitchens and sheathed in lacy aprons (though it was a breed that would survive well into the 1960s). In a series of fact-finding trips they called Pacific Coasting, Gen and Lou showed that food writers could be field reporters, discovering avocados and abalone, and mining very un-mainstream cuisines like Chinese and Mexican.

Long-time Sunset food editor Jerry Anne Di Vecchio knew Gen and Lou mostly by reputation. "They stopped everywhere," Di Vecchio said, "any taco stand or Oriental market, barbecue or food festival. They were discovering everything for the first time and telling their readers about it -- they were the first ones in America to write about posole."

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By 1938 Genevieve Callahan's Sunset gig was over (Lou Richardson's name had vanished from the masthead in 1933, though she continued freelancing). Bill Lane, son of the original owner, once said he didn't recall exactly why Gen left, but speculated it may have been that Gen and Lou were too open in their relationship. Even in San Francisco, a city with a freewheeling rep even in the 1930s, overt lesbianism didn't exactly fly. He thought there might well have been pressure on the couple to cool it or leave.

In 1946, Callahan saw publication of The California Cook Book, a work Celia Sack of Omnivore Books in Noe Valley called significant for having the first recipe for Green Goddess dressing. In her introduction Callahan wrote, "California is more than a state -- it's a way of life." Sure, it's trite. But for Gen and Lou, it may have been a line hinting, in part, at personal transformation.

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